Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Slowly by Slowly

In the fall of 2010, Ryan Sarafolean, the Director of the KGSA Foundation, walked into my classroom at Cretin-Derham Hall to tell my students the story of KGSA. He had freshly returned from Kibera, raw and full of emotion. I sat in the back of the room as he told stories about and projected pictures of the KGSA students and got emotional myself. This was a great story.

As a teacher, woman, athlete, writer, and traveler—all kinds of corners of my heart woke up. I truly, passionately believe that getting more girls access to excellent education is one of the jobs of our generation if we dare to dream of a healthier world. We know it is the right thing to do, and it is the strategic thing to do. Educated girls become transformative women who invest in their families and communities. At KGSA, Abdul was doing the important work of education, and he was doing it well to the benefit of the girls, their families, and all of Kibera.

I fell in love with the story first, and then I fell in love with the actual school and the girls. In the summer of 2012, Ryan and Abdul invited me to KGSA as a writer to help them tell their story. The campus feels like a haven in the middle of Kibera, abuzz with learning and laughter. I got straight to work. My work was asking questions and then sitting and listening to the story of the school unfold before me.

I learned through and through that these girls are vibrant, sharp, powerful, funny, talented, resilient, patient, strategic, driven, focused, silly, supportive and kind. They know what opportunities they need to build a fulfilling life. That is the magic of KGSA. Abdul is not a trained educator. He is a Kiberan man, wanting to honor the memory of his mother and grandmother who worked to get him an education. He listens to the students and uses his charisma, vision, instinct, cultural capital and work ethic to grow KGSA into what the girls need the school to be.
Abdul and Ellie hanging out at the school 

I returned to KGSA in the summer of 2013 and was welcomed in like a long lost family member. And since then, I have been working on the story of KGSA one sentence at a time. The book is called Slowly by Slowly, and it will be available soon.

I struggled over whether I was the right person to write the story. I still struggle. Abdul has read it and likes it and is appreciative that I have the time to whittle the details together. He assures me that he is simply too busy growing the school, which is exactly where he should be putting his time and energy. Abdul poked his head in one day during an interview and said, “Ellie, I think you know more about our story now than we do.” It has been some of the most rewarding work of my career.

KGSA has a great story. I am lucky to know and care about the people behind the story who have created a family, a transformational school that honors the whole girl and dares to hope for a better Kibera and thus a better world.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

My Kenyan Experience

My Kenyan Experience - Nate Kado

I am a student from the University of Minnesota and I spent eight months studying abroad in Kenya. For four of those months, I worked part-time with the Kibera Girls’ Soccer Academy (KGSA). I will admit that I was apprehensive when my university assigned me to work in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Sub-Saharan Africa. Friends in Kenya told me it could be a rough place. But they did say it was uniquely beautiful. I was intrigued. I decided to rest my anxieties and take my work assignment at KGSA.

My university supervisor led me to KGSA for my first day on a hot afternoon in the dry season. We walked down the newly tarmacked roads in Kibera’s Makina District and made our way past the tin roof shacks and fruit vendors. After bounding over a few exposed sewer ways, we rounded the corner and walked into KGSA’s compound. When we entered, I knew I was in the right place. I could feel the school’s warmth upon first step.

I heard a bell. It was lunch time. Students sprinted back and forth out of classrooms to grab their lunches. Following the students’ pace, we moved quickly across the grounds. We made our way into a room where my soon-to-be KGSA supervisor sat. The three of us, my university supervisor, KGSA supervisor, and I engaged in small talk. After some discussion, it was agreed that I would start teaching that day. My university supervisor left and my KGSA supervisor brought me to the form 3 classroom (11th grade). He told me to teach for the hour. I taught the class and fielded questions for an hour about America, my experience in Kenya, and the state of Kibera. The students asked a variety of questions. My favorite question was, “What do Americans think of Kenyans?”

The day sped by and soon it was time for after school clubs. I decided to shadow the debate club. Students brought out chairs from the classrooms and placed them on the open grounds beneath the basketball hoop. The chairs were placed in two groups, facing each other, about 20 seats on each side for a total of 40. One group represented the affirmative and the other the negative. Madame Shaquila, a KGSA instructor, facilitated the debate as the students discussed whether or not Africa should have a joint, continent-wide military. The students debated passionately and both sides made fair points. I was split on deciding the winner.

Besides shadowing debates, during the course of my four months, I also helped manage the school’s cyber cafe. Kibera residents visited the cafe to browse the internet, scan documents, and make small talk. I thought establishing the cafe was a smart move by KGSA. It helped the organization tap into other revenue streams to fund the school - and business was good. Additionally, it provided employment and professional development opportunities for students and graduates. This was particularly important considering the high level of joblessness in Kibera.

Midway through my time with KGSA, the students wanted a chance to learn a romance language, so I stepped in and taught rudimentary Spanish to forms 2-4 (10th-12th grade students). While teaching form 3, one of my students surprised me. She was already teaching herself Spanish, for fun. (She was not half bad). Her intellectual curiosity and resourcefulness were admirable. As a whole, my students were quick reads. I was impressed and they really made my job easy.  

After working with KGSA for four months, it was time for me to leave and fly back to the US for graduation. It was bittersweet. My students were inspiring and KGSA as a whole was inspiring. It empowered students and gave them an opportunity to further their education and, though it sounds cliché, pursue their dreams. I was thankful to be a part of KGSA and left Kibera with a feeling of accomplishment, and the thought that I possibly made a difference.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

My Kibera Girls Soccer Academy Story

My Kibera Girls Soccer Academy Story
By Jeremy Levinger

When I first arrived at the D.C. grounds entrance to Kibera to be escorted to the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy by the first student I would officially meet and connect with, Lynn Seru, I had no idea what to expect. What I was shown during the next six months was by far the most compassionate and connected community I have ever seen. I was given the amazing privilege of assisting with the poetry and theatre club, which was putting on their own play under the supervision of the wonderfully talented and enthusiastic Anne Moraa, Michael Onsando, Olly, Aguta Okwena, Naddya Adhiambo Oluoch-Olunya, Checkmate Mido, Kennet B, and more. I was soon blown away by all the raw emotion, vivid imagery, and pure emotional honesty portrayed in the poems and skits that the girls had created. Most of them revolved around gender roles in Kibera relating to education, as well as how Kenyan society views those who live in informal settlements such as Kibera and Mathare. For example, here are some lines from Lynn Seru’s poem I Represent: “Falling down does not make you a failure, but staying down makes you a failure, and you only live once, but if you live right, once is enough.”  Some poems addressed Kenya’s leadership, such as Irene Awinja’s If I Had Powers: “If I am a leader, I will always work – not only for my family…I will not choose who to help.” After months of rehearsal, the girls showcased their play at the Alliance Francaise de Nairobi and proved just how talented the young women in Kibera are! There were other times when individual students performed their poetry in other venues, such as for the Slam Africa monthly poetry competition at Dass Ethiopian Restaurant in Westlands. The girls were always determined to learn more, write more, read more, and spread a positive message for other Kibera residents.

            Outside of poetry and theatre club, I loved how intellectually curious the students were. For example, before travelling I was completely unaware how popular Mexican soap operas are in Kenya. I typically would have to rush back home to my host mom so we could watch Soy Tu Dueña together, despite the not so great voiceovers. Once my students found out that I spoke Spanish, they would constantly ask me how to say phrases in Spanish, in hopes to understand full telenovelas on their own one day. I would try to translate everything I could, under the condition that they would teach me that word or phrase in Swahili or sheng (local slang).

            When I speak with some of the former students online, I am not shocked to hear they have went onto college and are securing influential job positions, such as in the local Kibera radio station Pamoja FM, and in local churches, start-up businesses for the community, and even back at Kibera Girls Soccer Academy. The warm welcomes that KGSA and the surrounding residents of Kibera showed me have yet to be matched in another internship or job position since. I strongly urge everyone reading to visit and volunteer with the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy if you ever get the chance. I am also thrilled that the foundation is working on securing on-campus housing for students at KGSA! I encourage everyone to donate for this very worthy cause, since it can be hard to find tranquil and safe places to study in Kibera.  I will leave everyone with a quote that represents Kibera well, which one of the students told me during my first days with KGSA: “Be greatful or be a great fool.”

Below is a poem by Jeremy Levinger written during his time in Kenya.

If I were a Tree  (Ningelikuwa Mti)
If I were a tree, I would grow in the depths of Kibera; down there, like Lindi, or in the holes, like Mashimoni. I would grow where people respect my roots, because they know the beauty of what's hidden. My branches would gota (fist pound) every passerby and my bark would be stapled with flyers of Ohangla (traditional Luo music) and Reggae concerts. Mothers would carry unga (maize flour) under me and my leaves would protect them from the rain. I'd bear fruits for the local crazies, who need food for thought to reveal how clever they really are. I'd build seats where my ways split, so students could climb me to study and reach even greater heights. I'd have loose limbs that children could hang on to cross sewage water and my leaves would blow away smoke from burning trash. I would be a monument, so people could say "I live near the big tree". People would know where I come from and  would understand my roots, because underground is just a concept. If you look close enough, you would see my roots, drinking tears of abandoned mothers and drunkards, inspiring me to stand tall. You'd see green, deep in the heart of the chocolate city, and you'd hear the same birds that wake you up every morning. You'd see pain, gripping to the same beaten soil as usual, but I'm still smiling, still focusing on what I'm carrying; the nature of the community. If I were a tree, only the poor would hug me.